Category Archives: Social Issues

Thank a Woman of Color in Education

Note: this blog was originally posted on hope.teague.com under the title “Women of Color In Education Should Be the Norm”

Ate Josie (pronounced a-taay, meaning “big sister” in Tagalog) had a stern face. She was no-nonsense when it came to Children’s Church at TayTay New Life Christian Fellowship. It was 1987 and we were going to learn about Jesus, come hell or high water. It didn’t matter that we were sweating buckets because the ceiling fan had stopped working.

Ann Chau spent every Saturday night at Harvesters Youth Group actively listening to awkward and dramatic teenagers, her eyes simultaneously empathetic and judging. She always listened.  Trustworthy and loyal, she taught us that compassion for others was more important than popularity. She encouraged our crew of misfit, tri-culture kids from around the world. Ann made me feel valued and through our relationship I realized I wanted to do that for other teens.

Christina Tsu was my youth pastor and the “boss” of my senior year internship at a local church (I was still living in Hong Kong). She counseled me as I decided who my closest friends were and what college I would attend. It was under her leadership that I became self-disciplined, learning how to passionately serve others, and how to listen to God through prayer. She shaped my notions of self-worth and my belief in God. This is the year I realized I wanted to teach high school and not become a nurse (plus body fluids are nasty!).

These women left a fingerprint on my life. While my exposure to women of color in leadership and education roles is a little nontraditional (I didn’t attend school in the United States),  it has shaped how I viewed women in power. I grew up thinking that women of all colors could be in positions of power and authority while leading their respective communities. This was my norm.

My experience is not the case for many students of color in the United States today. There are systemic reasons for this exclusion that are embedded in our history of institutional racism. Often, educators of color serve in auxiliary roles such as paraeducators, office personnel, or career counselors.  While this is important and without a doubt these educators change lives, only 18% of certificated teachers are of color. With such a low percentage, it is likely that most students will never encounter a teacher of color in their K-12 career.

Disclaimer: I want to acknowledge that women–particularly women of color–have always been marginalized teachers in society. As mothers, grandmothers, aunties, and sisters, they instill the most important life lessons about the world in their children, grandchildren, and siblings.

Just a couple of weeks ago I lurked in the background of an #EduColor chat titled “Her Struggle, Her Power: Women of Color as Educators.” I felt this chat was one of the most important conversations I’ve joined–not because I actually had anything to say, but because I had everything to learn. A few things stood out to me:

Women in teaching deal with a lot of the same crap from a system that doesn’t value them enough. Teaching was one of the first professions open to women in a society that didn’t view us as intelligent or capable (ironic considering we’re the ones educating future generations *Kanye shrug). So now we’ve “proven” ourselves, but we’ve also proven that we will tolerate poor working conditions and mediocre compensation packages.

Women of color have it even worse than white women. In addition to being poorly paid, teachers of color aren’t treated the same way their white counterparts are. Often they are disproportionately subject to working with “hard” cases and seen only as disciplinarians rather than instructional experts. Furthermore, in addition to gender discrimination, they face straight up racism from students, parents, colleagues, and the system as a whole!

Women of color in education reach students in a way that interchangeable white ladies need to learn from. I’d argue this is probably my most important takeaway from that Twitter chat. But it’s also the most challenging. I’m still grappling with what this looks like. I don’t think this means you awkwardly pretend you understand the WOC experience or say anything weird about how their race must help them connect with all kids from ____ racial background. Maybe start by reading this article by Christina Torres Under Pressure: Being a Woman of Color in Education. Then, go read the transcript of that Twitter chat and comment here with your own reflection.

I am the white woman I am today because of women of color.

To Appreciate a Teacher…

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the cookies.

Those intricately decorated, apple-shaped cookies: I do appreciate those.

And the bacon. That pound of pepper-bacon a group of students gave me after I used a few too many example sentences including bacon in our practice with diagramming sentences.

Then there are notes: Brief or lengthy, the notes from parents, students, former students from over a decade ago whose teenaged face immediately appears the moment I see the name on the return address. Those keep me going and make me feel appreciated, for sure, and are among my most cherished items.

I’ve been lucky that those kinds of little surprises haven’t been relegated to just one week in the year when websites offer discounts or coupons and businesses encourage patrons to “thank a teacher.”

This year for Teacher Appreciation Week, what will really make teachers feel appreciated? Maybe a cookie or a pound of bacon, but most definitely a specific kind of little note will do. A phone call, maybe. A visit to an office. More specifically: notes, phone calls, emails, office visits to our legislative policymakers. That’s how teachers will feel appreciated. Call for a budget that fully funds Washington public schools, not to “throw money at the problem,” but to invest in a system that for the last forty years has been perpetually under-invested in. Call for policies that make sense for kids, parents, communities, and schools. The voices of teachers in this battle are too often discounted as shrill, complainy, or as base union thuggery. The voices of parents, students, and community members are what policymakers have a harder time ignoring.

Teachers know that we are appreciated at the immediate, local level, with our kids and parents. We are thankful for that, for sure. We love the cookies, the treats, and the notes: Those put the wind back in our sails without a doubt.

But this year, consider one phone call, one note, or one office visit to your elected officials who are struggling to get their work done. Little by little those small gestures of appreciation will add up and make a huge difference not just to “appreciate teachers,” but to transform the lives of kids.


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Fakes, Facts, and the Hardest Lessons to Teach

I was numbly scrolling through Facebook a recent morning when one of those infographic-ish memes appeared. Of course, since it was in my feed, it aligned with the political leanings that my clicks and likes had already communicated to the Facebook algorithms, and in my pre-coffee state I found myself hovering over the “share” button.

I had to pause, though. Even though I wanted (desperately) to believe that the political statement being made in the meme was true (hint: it had to do with golf trips and certain federal budget items), I wasn’t sure. I didn’t see any sources linked, I didn’t know who the creator of the meme was, and I didn’t want to spend a ton of time researching its veracity. I did anyway, and after about three minutes of research it turned out that this particular meme had its number off by about 100 times and misrepresented the nature of the budget in question. Darn those pesky alternative facts.

While I didn’t click “share,” that nugget of information, despite being proven false, is now lodged in the schema that I bring to political conversations in the near future. I will have to very intentionally not use it as I form my arguments to support my political positions. That will be hard, because meme-depth facts are what it seems most political conversations resort to anymore.

We hear plenty about Fake News nowadays. Fake News is to critical thinking what super-sized fast food is to our diet: It is convenient, appears to look more or less like it’s authentic counterpart, and satisfies a need. Yes, a flawed analogy if extended completely, but there are valid parallels about the long term health of both individuals and the community. In particular, a good parallel is that the amount of comparable effort it takes to systematically deconstruct and discount Fake News is as seemingly insurmountable as making seismic shifts to unhealthy diet habits. If the latter were easy, we’d all be fit and healthy; if the former were easy, Fake News would be a nonissue.

How do we teach “quick” critical thinking? How do we teach students to resist the temptation of our confirmation biases? How do we teach that facts aren’t established by clicks, shares, or re-tweets…and that our own opinions don’t trump facts just because our opinions are our own?

Forget Common Core. This is the great pedagogical challenge of the next phase of my career.


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Brave New World: Choice Among Alphas

In Aldous Huxley’s early-mid 20th century novel Brave New World, society is medically engineered into five rigid castes. At the top are the Alphas, the genetically and socially gifted; at the other end are the Epsilons, those beings human in form but relegated to work in service to the higher castes.

I used this novel in my Senior Lit and Comp class as one of the works we’d explore while understanding the basics of literary criticism. Brave New World was an excellent study in how to apply a Marxist literary perspective when examining a work of literature. This literary perspective involves looking both within and beyond the world of literature: through the “external” perspective, considering the novel (the physical book itself) as a product within a socio-economic system; through the “internal” perspective, considering the social and economic hierarchies within the story, highlighting the conflict between those who have economic or social power and those who lack it.

We currently seem to live in a world of hyperbole-turned-reality, so I’ll dip my toe in that water: The proposed repeal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (HR 610) is a systematic move to cement social castes maintained not by physical engineering as in Brave New World, but rather, by culling and sorting who is bestowed access to education. Where in the novel it benefits the higher castes to keep the lower castes physically controlled, in our world that control becomes control over access to information and education.

The purpose isn’t even hidden. HR 610 isn’t about serving all students: It states from the outset that it is only serving “eligible students,” which is openly defined in the bill as students whose parents elect to homeschool or send their child to a private school.

Further, under the guise of providing this “choice,” this bill undoes protections for disabled students as established in ESEA. It takes steps toward eliminating school lunch programs for low income students. It pretends that it is creating “choices in education.” When we look at who ends up with the power to choose, it is quite clear that this bill has zero interest in providing a free, quality education to all. If it did, the solution would be invest heavily in improving outcomes for all participants in the system, not just for those who want to get away from “those failing schools” through the power to choose one supposed option over another (even though there is growing evidence that non-public schools in the the choice model being proposed don’t actually serve kids better than traditional public schools).

Public education should be focused less on choices privileged adults are offered and more on equipping every young person with full access to ample choices upon becoming an adult. I want every graduate from my school to have the foundation from which he or she can choose virtually any path: university, work, trade school, family…and not feel locked out of any choice because of some action their guardian did or didn’t take when it came time to seek a supposed golden ticket (hollow promise).

Public education should be about empowering those who are born into situations which, for reasons beyond that little child’s control, place that child at a disadvantage in the face of societal systems constructed for the majority race, majority gender, and majority culture. The vision of the American Dream (a Dream never yet realized), with America as a place of opportunity, once included that those in the majority would use their collective power to ensure that those in the minority progress toward freedom from personal and institutional oppression…so that all those American promises remain possibilities.

Whether this bill dies a quick death or not, it is beyond clear that the potential for public education as a societal equalizer is a threat to those in power. HR 610 is not about helping all kids. Period.

President’s Day

Today is president’s day, the day we celebrate Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday.

As it happens, I am currently reading Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. And, as it happens, today I read this excerpt from a letter he wrote on October 5, 1863:

“We are in civil war. In such cases there always is a main question; but in this case that question is a perplexing compound—Union and Slavery. It thus becomes a question not of two sides merely, but of at least four sides, even among those who are for the Union, saying nothing of those who are against it. Thus, those who are for the Union with, but not without slavery—those for it without but not with—those for it with or without, but prefer it with—and those for it with or without, but prefer it without. Among these again is a subdivision of those who are for gradual but not for immediate, and those who are for immediate, but not for gradual extinction of slavery.”

First of all, I marveled at his understanding of the complexity of the issue facing him and the nation, at the shades of loyalty to one cause or the other that he could parse out in a few phrases.

In those days people didn’t use bullets or charts. I put the ideas into slightly simpler language and into a diagram that I could use in my classroom.

But Lincoln didn’t stop there. He went on. “It is easy to conceive that all these shades of opinion, and even more, may be sincerely entertained by honest and truthful men.”

As I’ve been reading his biography I’ve been struck by how vilified Lincoln was while he was in office, not just by the South but by the North as well. We hear his name now and immediately think of the Lincoln Memorial. The Gettysburg Address. The national holiday. But while he was alive I think he felt he was fighting his own side almost as much as the Confederacy.

Instead of lashing out or complaining bitterly about all the groups opposing him, Lincoln makes this extraordinary statement. A wide range of opinions can be sincere. The people who have them can be honest and truthful even while they disagree.

That’s the best civics lesson I can bring back to school tomorrow.

Sometimes issues are complex.

People will disagree.

The ways they disagree may be complex too.

Even when people disagree with you, assume the best motives. Assume sincerity. Assume integrity. Carry on a conversation from there.

Thank you, Mr. Lincoln.

Why Unions Matter

If you happen to be a member of your local education association, chances are you’ve received some emails this year asking you to rescind your membership.

Like too many issues (such as presidential elections), we humans have the tendency to make decisions based on emotion rather than fact. Many people are on edge, and you don’t have to look far online to find people with strong anti-union sentiments. However, I rarely am able to uncover facts or actual events that serve well to make unions, teachers’ unions in particular, worthy of such tremendous hatred.

Sure, there are the cases where a union enforced a poorly worded contract and a crappy teacher got to keep their job. It happens. There are plenty of actions that unions have taken that I personally don’t agree with, and thus I am working “from the inside” to change as an active union member.

If we want to know why unions matter to teachers and to public education, Wisconsin has engaged in a deeply unfortunate experiment we can all learn from. The gist: The state government of Wisconsin passed what it called the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill” that included as one of its “repairs” the destruction of labor unions’ rights to collectively bargain. Here’s the whole article, but details worthy of noting:

  • Total teacher compensation has dropped 8% since the Bill.
  • There is no way for teachers to negotiate for pay increases or for better benefits; meanwhile costs of benefits have increased.
  • Certificated teachers are leaving in droves; the article includes examples of positions left unfilled or filled by unqualified, non-certificated staff. (I’m not clear how this could be filed under “In the best interests of students.”)

Unfortunately, the public face of the union has done us any favors: To people not familiar, picturing a union means picturing a bunch of people not working, but rather pacing, chanting, holding signs…acts that I understand in terms of labor relations but which I also believe are the worst possible public relations moments our organizations can ask for. This unfortunately masks the real work that unions do: advocating for the working and learning conditions of staff and students in all of our schools.

This year, my district recruited a handful of teachers from “right to work” states where the powers of unions are restricted. They tell me again and again how different everything is here in Washington: they as teachers feel valued, their students are safe, there is consistency and stability in policy. These create the conditions that enable students to succeed. It is easy to focus only on compensation as the primary focus of an education association, but the reality is far more complex: Yes, unions negotiate pay and benefits, which are about recruiting and retaining top quality educators. Unions also negotiate class sizes, special education caseloads, access to curriculum and resources, and programs from STEM to the arts to counseling to intervention. Unions are a powerful voice for teachers and the strongest voice for students.

When our legislature comes together in the new year, we need to be careful to watch for threats to public education from all angles (like this one), not the least of which being threats to educators’ powers to organize and advocate. We need to learn from Wisconsin.

Post Election Perspective from the Classroom

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There are days in a teacher’s career where you question your value or whether or not you can continue to do your work. Today was not one of them.

Today reinforced why my work matters. Today reinforced how important my work is.

I teach American Government. Believe me, this work isn’t for the faint-hearted. My goals have always been to create an engaged citizen who values analysis and research and recognizes bias and perspective. In an election cycle, the significance of this work becomes immediately apparently.

So I did my work. We discussed the liberal media, the conservative media, the aggregate polls, the junk polls, PACs, SuperPACs, image and the political process. On Election Night, I was glued to the news and my fingers were attached to my phone, updating my twitter account and asking questions to my students using an advertised hashtag. Finally, the election arrived. For government teachers, the election is the political amalgamation of the Super Bowl and Olympics.

This isn’t my first election as a teacher. In fact, I began my teaching career in the fall of 2000. I vividly remember telling my students on Election Day 2000, “We should know the results late tonight.” Well, we all know how that turned out.

The 2004 election was a bit trickier. We were in a war and Americans were still reeling from the effects of 9/11. The 2008 and 2012 election drew youth to the polls. My students were excited to discuss those elections and the candidates. My students mobilized for these candidates.

This election was different. I know this isn’t news to anyone but as a government teacher, I didn’t find my students incredibly interested. We did begin our discussion a year earlier, tracking the primary candidates on the board. Several of my students attended the caucuses and asked questions. A few even went to local rallies. But when the dust settled after the primaries and convention, students didn’t ask many questions or offer many opinions unless I prompted them. However, when prompted, my students respectfully recognized that they held different opinions from one another. I held a debate viewing party at school and students showed up and engaged in conversation. I knew that my students held diverse perspectives on the candidates so I thought I was prepared for how to discuss the outcome of the election. I realized that I wasn’t.

I threw out my lesson plan as my students rolled into class today. I witnessed pleased students happy with the outcome walk in and sit down next to those who were crestfallen.  Regardless of their division, in front of me, they appeared united.  They wanted to know more and sought first to understand. I began our class with the conclusion of Lincoln’s First inaugural Address. My theme quickly emerged as “the Better Angels of our Nature.” I steered the class into a discussion regarding what we’ve learned about campaigns in the past and how the meshes with what we saw occur. My students shared civil discourse and even as we moved into “What questions do you have for our President-elect” I became acutely aware of how real the outcome felt for them. They asked questions about financial aid funding, free trade agreements, military spending, freedom of worship, and social welfare programs. They sought answers to questions that many adults hadn’t considered. The bell rang and class ended but my work did not. Throughout my day, students came to see me, wanting to know more, wanting to understand, and they sought both dialogue and an ear. I offered both.

As I think back about my day, I realize just how important teaching is. Our job allows us to develop students into adults that can engage in civil discourse. We can role model for our students how to accept diverse opinions without fear of jeopardizing one’s own beliefs. We can exhibit respect, acceptance, tolerance, truth, and compassion. If we can do this, our young adults will learn from us how to act and respond to one another.

Today, my work mattered.

Dear Class of 2016: It is okay if you’re not going to college.

What’s not okay: (1) Mooching off your your family or society while remaining unemployed and unwilling to put in the leg work to pursue employment, (2) Going on and on about how all the facts and figures you learned in high school (example: Algebra) aren’t things you use in the “real world,” and (3) Assuming that “going to college” is inherently the best choice or a guarantee of future happiness, financial security, or prosperity. And, so I’m clear: I am not opposed to encouraging students to set their sights on college. If you’re headed off to a university next year, best of luck and congratulations.

What I am opposed to is the narrative that we’ve spun for students in our public schools about “college” being the only correct preferred path all should choose.

Notice that once we adopted this mantra, the policy and practice priorities shifted toward the accumulation of scores rather than the acquisition of skills. And notice that once we started focusing rabidly on scores, more and more students (and teachers) felt desperate enough to cheat, more and more students (and teachers) spiraled down into the mires of stress and anxiety, and more and more colleges were getting nabbed for preying on the “college only” mindset by gladly taking tuition money and churning out valueless degrees. Notice that as we focused on college admission as the be-all, end-all, vocational programs were squeezed out of secondary schools and the nation began to cry more and more that high schools were churning out students who didn’t know anything (they’d only memorized it for the test) and couldn’t do anything (they hadn’t been encouraged to gain marketable, real skills).

That’s all very negative, but here’s the upside: Continue reading

21st Century School Segregation: The Power of Neighborhood Schools

My first two years of teaching, I commuted to work—45 minutes one way, an hour and a half the other. My gas bill was insane and I was constantly stressed out from the traffic. I wanted to move closer to my school, but didn’t really want to live in Kent. Although I loved the staff and the students, I knew I wanted to eventually work in a more urban school. Commuting was the norm for most teachers in our building, and a majority of my colleagues drove in from surrounding cities. We’d joke about the benefits of living out of district—time to plan in the car or going to a bar without worrying about running into parents. But, I always felt the drawbacks outweighed the benefits. I was so exhausted I didn’t feel like I was doing my best teaching. I barely attended after-school activities like dances, football games or musicals. I felt like I wasn’t supporting my students enough and only had a surface level understanding the community’s values.

Deep down, I knew that living so far away from where I taught was counter to my belief system. I grew up as the kind of missionary kid that actually lived in the village my parents worked in. My parents home schooled us so that they could integrate their ministries into our daily lives (that meant at age 8 I was helping deliver babies in the prenatal clinic my mom built in the garage). This is why, after two years at Kentridge High School, I eagerly accepted a job in Clover Park School District just ten minutes from my house. Now, I teach at Lincoln, eat my way up and down 38th street (shout out to Vien Dong, Zocalo, and Dragon Crawsfish!), shop at Cappy’s and the 72nd Fred Meyer, and live on the Eastside of Tacoma. I love it.

I believe in neighborhood schools.

I believe in living and teaching in my neighborhood school.

A strong neighborhood school has the potential to change lives. It can be community-oriented, a center of support for families. It’s the community listening as Clover Park HS seniors describe how they tried to change the world through their senior project. It’s Abe’s Golden Acres providing one ton of food for the Eastside of Tacoma during the summer. It’s the SOMA church donating toiletries and snacks for the Football team. It’s The Grand Cinema sponsoring a Film Club after school. Successful neighborhood schools are thriving hubs that facilitate strong community-school partnerships that promote real world learning experiences for students.

I find myself extremely excited about neighborhood schools that are an integral part of their community and that reflect the racial and cultural makeup of that neighborhood. But the nature of intersectionality prevents me from ignoring the overlapping venn diagrams where race and class meet school and housing policies. Because anyone who doesn’t live under a mushroom can see that the neighborhood school reflects the people living in the ‘hood. So we end up with whiter or browner schools directly reflective of historical housing practices (redlining) and current housing “choice” (aka white families fleeing the urban core).

As a result, our segregated neighborhood schools reveal an increased concentration of the have and have-nots. In my mind, the real issue is the concentration of poverty that accompanies the neighborhood.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about many high-performing charters is that they are neighborhood schools. Many public charters are serving a traditionally marginalized, high poverty population. Programs like KIPP or Greendot are a response to long neglected neighborhoods and communities. And their students are thriving. The anti-charter crowd forgets that segregation already existed in these communities and that the charters went into rejected communities, targeted children that many believe couldn’t learn, and said they were valuable and could achieve. Charters schools don’t promote school segregation. They offer a solution (note: I did not say the solution).

So What?

If we want great public schools for all students then we need to be honest with ourselves about our current conditions. We need to recognize that the current housing and school policies work together for the betterment of some schools and neighborhoods and not others, and with that understanding we can do better. We need to prioritize. Is school choice most important? Does the demographic makeup of the student population really matter? Do we fight to desegregate our schools? Do we work to decentralize concentrated poverty? Do we invest in making amazing neighborhood schools regardless of the makeup of the neighborhood? All of the above?

Now What?

There is so much more to be said or explored. But for now, I want to end with a thought from Korbett Mosesly on my initial post.

“What if we started from the premise that culturally affinity neighborhoods are ok. It is the racial mismatch in educational leadership/teacher and their students that may be an issue if there is a lack of open dialogue and understanding. It’s a lack of equity in resources to provide fully funded educational programs that is an issue. It’s a concentration of intergenerational poverty and a lack of people be willing to have hard conversations about systems of oppression.”

Let’s continue to have those hard conversations.

Student Behavior, Teacher Behavior, and Getting Cussed Out

For some reason, my heart has always been with “those kids.” The ones who sneer at you the first time you meet them. The ones who push buttons and boundaries. The frequent fliers in the “tank” (In School Suspension) and who know the campus security guards far too well.

I was talking to the principal at the smaller of the two high schools in our district recently, and without consulting my brain, my mouth spoke my truth: What a privilege it is for me to be the adult for that kid at whom they can scream “F— you, Mr. Gardner!” And then tomorrow, we can talk it through and figure out where that came from; I can teach about repairing relationships, and we can strategize how to handle it better next time…and the time after that…in a safe place where they won’t be risking their paycheck or their marriage or their freedom; in a safe place where they can start to learn some important lessons that don’t show up in the Common Core.

Read no sarcasm here, I mean it: What a privilege that I get to be that person.

While I think I’m a pretty good teacher of the academic stuff, I think what has made me successful is the way I handle moments like that. I don’t always do it perfectly; none of us do. The idea of student discipline is one that I often think over, and in particular in my role this year as a new-teacher mentor. Classroom management and discipline, creating those safe, productive educational spaces, are central lessons for the beginning of a teaching career. Recently, at a conference related to the Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST) program here in Washington, this topic of how teachers handle student behavior was at the core.

It was at this conference that I was handed some data that did what data is supposed to do: It made me think.

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